September 19, 2023

Edwin Poots ‘must make a very clear statement’ on Agriculture Department whistleblower scandal

AGRICULTURE Minister Edwin Poots has been asked to make an official statement about a vet who was kicked out of his job for whistleblowing.

Dr Tamara Bronckaers was forced out of her job in 2018.

She won a labor court last September, but the Department of Agriculture appealed that verdict, only agreeing to settle the case two weeks ago.

The whistleblower, who had worked for the department for 19 years, said she uncovered animal welfare lapses at livestock markets as well as lapses in the way livestock movements were recorded.

Dr Bronckaers said the issues could impact the traceability of meat as well as the spread of diseases including bovine tuberculosis.

The judge who heard the case has repeatedly said she does not believe the evidence provided by two key figures – Northern Ireland’s chief veterinarian Robert Huey and Dr Bronckaers’ line manager Julian Henderson .

The executive’s former director of communications, Stephen Grimason, yesterday denounced the ‘scandalous behaviour’.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that Civil Service chief Jayne Brady was due to intervene in the case.

SDLP’s Patsy McGlone, an outgoing Farm Committee member from Stormont, said Mr Poots was due to make a statement as head of the department.

“We need to start taking people seriously, especially those who make serious, evidence-based accusations about the treatment of animals,” he said.

He said he was amazed to read the damning judgment of the industrial tribunal.

“The minister himself needs to come out and make a very clear statement about this: one, there are clear practices in the department when evidence comes to light of wrongdoing or animal abuse and two, he sends a clear statement message on food standards,” he said.

“He is the minister in situ responsible for this department. He needs to clear things up to send a clear message about how things are going in Northern Ireland.”

A spokeswoman for Dr Brady told the Belfast Telegraph she was “committed to improving the way all concerns are handled across all departments”, but said decisions about Dr Bronckaers’ treatment were a matter for the The Minister of Agriculture.

A decade ago, when he was health minister, Mr Poots tried to strengthen whistleblower legislation, saying health service staff had a “moral duty” to raise the alarm.

The Department of Agriculture has been contacted for comment.

However, he previously said Mr Poots had played no role in the matter.

With the matter settled, the department said it “unreservedly apologizes to Dr. Tamara Bronckaers”.

He said he ordered an internal review of the case.

Mr Grimason, a former BBC NI political editor, said Dr Brady “needs to really get involved in this”.

He said ministers should generally not get involved in staffing issues.

But he said there were unique circumstances due to “the magnitude of the offense that has been caused to this poor woman, the refusal to act and the fact that it is not about sort of an administrative exercise – it’s about protecting our reputation around the world in terms of what’s happening with TB and animal welfare and producing products that can be sold on the global market”.